Ultimate Rivals: The Court is NBA Jam meets Smash Bros.

Ben Freidlin understands what folks are taking a look at initially when they see a screenshot of Ultimate Competitors: The Court. It’s normally the licensing. The celebs. They’re looking at Alex Morgan from the U.S. Women’s National Group, skyrocketing high over Hall-of-Famer Wayne Gretzky. Neither one plays basketball, however she’s about to jam one in the Great One’s face.

Freidlin, president of Bit Fry Video Game Studios, doesn’t reject that inking 60 all-stars from 5 sports to a licensing offer for a mobile computer game is a hell of a head-turner. (The late David Stern, the previous NBA commissioner and a financier in Bit Fry, informed Sports Service Journal that anybody who might gather that lots of leagues and gamers’ unions “deserves to be canonized.”) And Freidlin, a high school dropout, can share some stem-winders about that, too — however he’d rather concentrate on the video game now.

“We’re definitely at a point where I feel like that accomplishment, I don’t want to say it’s old news, but it’s about to be eclipsed, I think, by the work product that we’ve created,” Freidlin stated. “And I would love to talk about that.”

Ultimate Competitors: arcade sports as a battling video game

So, let’s discuss it. Ultimate Competitors: The Court is the follow-up to 2019’s Ultimate Competitors: The Rink, a strong success in the earliest months of Apple Game. Freidlin anticipates this variation, which has lots of huge names from 5 sports playing hoops rather of hockey, will release on Apple Game at some point prior to completion of the NBA Finals.

That ought to remain in 2 or 3 weeks, however “there’s always a possibility that could slip,” Freidlin informed Polygon. “If it slipped, it would be by hopefully a very small amount, but that’s the goal.” The video game likewise has a page on Steam with a third-quarter 2021 launch date, and Bit Fry has longer-term goals of bringing it to consoles.

That puts The Court’s advancement time at around 15 months, Freidlin stated. The video game shares a characteristic system and a creative design with The Rink, however it’s not a reskinning, he stated. The Rink, according to Freidlin, was integrated in around 8 months; The Court’s advancement group is approximately double the size, and has approximately double the time to do its thing, which Freidlin still thinks about “an absurdly short” period.

Conceptually, both video games embrace an excessive game format familiar to video games like NBA Jam or NHL Hitz. However when Freidlin discuss Ultimate Competitors: The Court, he chooses to pitch it as a battling video game. That explains its rather bold commitment to 60-frames-per-second gameplay, on Apple mobile devices. The promise means that the game will run best on higher-end iPhones and iPads, of course, but it’s there because Ultimate Competitors: The Court is striving for a battling video game’s almost frame-by-frame approach of move, counter, and result.

“When I talk to our lead animator, and his team, we’re almost never talking about sports games or sports animations,” Freidlin said. “We’re talking about, ‘Go load that Street Fighter video; go load that Tekken video; go to Tekken 7, go to that version,’ right? We’re always discussing the kinetic feel of those games, as it relates to the inputs and the feedback that you get.”

Currently the video game is in a closed beta with about 1,000 players, Freidlin said. “All of the feedback we’ve been getting has been about the gameplay, more than the licenses, like 10 to 1. The licenses [are] a vehicle and a conceit under which you play this type of game, and it makes a lot of sense. And maybe it’s necessary. […] I think we’re going to feel very different. We’re going to feel more like a fighting game, even though the [gameplay] loop is really a basketball loop that everyone’s familiar with.”

Ultimate Rivals: The Court is a three-on-three game, as opposed to the two-on-two format many arcade basketball games take. Players may switch among any of their performers on the court — offense or defense. AI teammates are constantly moving, especially jumping toward the basket, making alley-oops a lot more common and a lot less difficult to trigger. Possession alternates on made baskets, naturally, however there’s a score multiplier that ticks up for things like dunks, or scoring streaks, which reward defensive stops and offer the possibility of a big rally even if you’re trailing by a lot.

“If you go on hard difficulty, it’s much more punishing and requires that you play good defense, and really use the score multipliers to win,” Freidlin said. “The alley-oops are not always a given. We wanted people to be able to play in the most expressive way possible. What I mean is, there’s a gentleman who’s on YouTube, or Twitch, and he’s always saying, ‘Don’t just try to win by shooting 3-pointers; you can do that, but I’m winning these games by shooting 2s, layups, and dunking on people.’”

As in NBA Jam — or a fighting game, for that matter — there’s a buildup to a player’s ultimate move, a throwdown jam animation corresponding to their sport. For Morgan, the USWNT striker, her ultimate is called Strikeforce. After a brief cutscene (in which Morgan executes an “anime-style, like, crazy samurai kick,” Freidlin said), soccer balls rain down on the court, stunning the opposing players. (Freidlin, perhaps subconsciously, called them “your enemy opponents”). While they’re incapacitated, Morgan and her teammates dunk on their basket with impunity. “It’s like a power play, just in basketball,” Freidlin explained.

Still, Freidlin can’t help but use fighting games as a point of reference. “Some people might want to, you know, stand back and just play footsies in order to get the win; some people might just come out swinging,” Freidlin said. “I wanted that ability in the game where people can find their personality. If you just feel that satisfaction from an alley-oop, well, you want to be able to do that, you want to try to do that, often, even if you don’t necessarily succeed.”

Ultimate Competitors: The Court has touchscreen controls (it is an Apple Arcade title, after all), but I found that it played best with a Bluetooth-paired gamepad. The Steam version will support both the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 as well as the current Xbox line of controllers.

“What I’m seeing is that more and more of the Gen Z audience is looking for their mid/quarter-core games to be on phones in the next five years,” Freidlin said. “So in a way, we’re kind of set up for that. And one of the feedback items we get a lot from the beta was, ‘You know, this is a console game, running on a phone.’”

That raises the question of when this, or The Rink, will come to PlayStation, Nintendo, or Xbox. Freidlin said either Ultimate Rivals video game needs the right publishing partner, prioritizing the game’s discoverability in a larger marketplace. “I want to make sure that it’s not another title that gets tossed in a bin for people to, hopefully, run into,” he stated, “but that it’s something any platform holder is really going to embrace.”

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.